At an April 9 auction, Mary Carroll, Dominique Pierre-Toussaint and Tracie Nelson Stanton kept their eyes peeled for a bus "with good bones."
"We didn't care if the bus had a few bumps and bruises," Carroll said.
They lucked out with an old Metro Transit bus that was used to carry people to and from the "dales," like the Southdale shopping mall. It's still in good shape, she said.
The trio is turning the bus into a solar-powered mobile art studio that will bring art to underserved youth all over the metro area. To make it happen, they've formed a nonprofit organization, Art ASAP, for which the acronym stands for After School Arts Programming, according to Carroll.
"Art ASAP" conveys a sense of urgency about exposing kids to art, she said. "Our goal is to bridge the gap in art education opportunities," which can help students succeed in many other activities, as well, she said.
The group plans to launch an eight-week artmaking program on the bus called "The Bus Stops Here" in the Hopkins area next month. Soon the bus will be fitted with several types of workstations, with benches and easels and portfolio storage, she said.
Free classes will be geared for children in grades 4 to 8. "A lot of kids get in trouble around that time and they're really creative. They crave self-expression," she said.
Later on, the group plans to roll out the program in other parts of town. "The hope is that young people exposed to poverty, violence or addiction will find an outlet in creative and constructive ways through the art-making process," Art ASAP materials state.
At the end of the course, young artists will have a professional portfolio; they'll also exhibit their work, which "instills pride and it shows the importance of it to the community," Carroll said.
Bridging the gap
Carroll came up with the idea for the art bus after she fell and tore a ligament in her arm in January. The injury slowed her down, giving her time to think about ways to use her talents in the community, she said.
Carroll, whose work has been featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, has frequently taught art classes for students of all ages. As such, she's all too familiar with the cutbacks to arts education in recent years.
Too often, after-school art offerings can be cost-prohibitive or tough for some students to get to, she said. As she mulled over those issues, she dreamed up the art bus. "This is a new area for me, akin to arts activism," she said.
Coincidentally, Carroll's maiden name is "Buss." "I grew up with bus jokes, and in fact, my grandfather emigrated from Holland in the 1930s and changed his surname from 'Bus' to 'Buss,' " because he thought it seemed more American, she said.
A bus seemed like an ideal way "to take the studio to students where they live," she said, adding, "It takes transportation out of the equation."
Carroll decided to join forces with Pierre-Toussaint and Nelson Stanton of the Minnesota Youth Community (MNYC), which spearheaded an extracurricular art club earlier this school year in the Hopkins school district.
Pierre-Toussaint, who is also a student support specialist for Hopkins public schools, jumped at the opportunity in part because "art has meant everything to me," he said.
As a high school student, a supervisor at a community center named Mr. Smalls took an interest in him and kept him busy with art assignments. It helped him to channel his emotions at a critical time. "I had my own wall," to paint on, he said, adding, "It took me out of the streets."
That's why he got into this line of work and started up the MNYC art club. It also helps him connect with his students, who call him "Mr. Neek," he said. They see him in another light, not just as an athlete, he said.
Likewise, Dr. Stanley Brown, a coordinator of equity and inclusion for Hopkins public schools who is a board member for Art ASAP, said the art education he received at the Harlem School of the Arts in New York in the 1960s played a major role in his development. "I developed a love for aesthetics and the beauty in life," he said.
As a longtime educator, he's seen a direct correlation between a child's academic achievement and art. "It infuses children with creativity and critical thinking," Brown said. "It helps mold the whole child."
Rehabbing the bus
A couple of Saturdays ago, rehab of the bus began with the help of volunteers who gathered at a St. Paul bus parking lot.
The group is getting help from Walsh Construction as it wraps up construction on the Green Line light-rail line that will connect the city to downtown Minneapolis.
Together, the volunteers removed seats, took apart railings and swept the floors. They spent some time discussing the possibilities for the design aspects too.
Even the youngest volunteer, 7-year-old Landon Stanton, got in on the act, using markers to color on the bus's exterior. Meanwhile, everyone took turns sitting in the driver's seat.
Brandy Burgess, a freshman at the Minneapolis Business College who graduated from Hopkins High School in Minnetonka last year, didn't mind waking up early to come help with the bus makeover. "I think what they're doing is awesome, to transport the art studio to people who aren't exposed to it," she said.
After a few hours, she got a good feel for what the end product might look like. "It's fun, seeing the progress so far. It definitely doesn't look like a city bus anymore," she said.
Her mom, Chantele Burgess, a student support specialist at Gatewood Elementary School in Minnetonka who was also on hand that day, chimed in: "I'm a believer that art is a way for transforming and educating and healing."
It's also a way to bring more perspectives to light, she said. The bus "will give everyone an opportunity to be a part of that."
Another volunteer, Leule Assmrew, who works with "Mr. Neek" at Glen Lake Elementary School, agreed. "I believe this project will do a lot of good," he said. "I want to see the vision come to life."
An experience like this is also beneficial to him as he explores career options. "I'm learning to use these tools. I've never done that before. I mean, I put together my bed, but that's about it," he said. "Maybe I want to go into construction? It's an opportunity for me, too."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.